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Monday, March 28, 2011

Ebert's Greats #9: The Firemen's Ball (1967)

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Director: Milos Forman

Milos Forman won Oscars and international acclaim for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, but 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball is arguably the film that has had the greatest impact on his life and career. Made during a particularly politically fraught time, the film ended up being banned in what was then Czechoslovakia and Forman was forced to emigrate or face 10 years in prison. Nevertheless, the film managed to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and became a seminal film from the Czech New Wave, one of the richest and most interesting artistic movements of the 20th Century.

The film centers on the fire department of a small town and the decision to organize a party which will honour their chairman, who is celebrating a birthday and suffering from cancer (he knows about the birthday but is unaware of the cancer), and which will feature entertainment in the form of a lottery and a beauty contest. From the beginning, the party is basically a gong show. First, they can’t find enough women to participate in the beauty contest. Then, once the candidates are secured, they all decide that they don’t want to participate after all and lock themselves in the ladies room, prompting the beauty contest committee to start selecting women from the ball room floor, none of whom want to participate either and are forcibly dragged up on stage. It is hilariously awful.

In the midst of this, the fire siren goes off, making it necessary for the firemen to run off – which in turn allows the partygoers to sneak out without paying for any of the drinks they’ve imbibed – but their attempt to save the house of an old man is thwarted when the fire truck gets stuck in the snow. Taking pity on the old man, who has lost everything save a few pieces of furniture, the firemen decide to give him the prizes from the lottery. Unfortunately, in their absence, all of the prizes save a few have been stolen. The firemen attempt to guilt the partygoers into returning the prizes and turn out the lights in order to allow them to return the purloined items anonymously, but when the lights come back on, nothing has been returned. In fact, all that has happened is that the remaining items have now been stolen as well. While the firemen adjourn to another room to decide what to do, everyone leaves – everyone except the Chairman, who has been shunted to the side again and again during the course of the evening’s various excitements.

The Firemen’s Ball unfolds with an easy, unforced humour that makes the most of all the little crises that arise during the course of the evening, making scenes that would otherwise be very dark subversively funny. For example, when the firemen rush to the fire but find they can do little to quell it, they do as much for the old man as they possibly can. As part of that effort they rescue a chair for him to sit on and when he complains that he’s cold, they move the chair closer to the fire. Forman knows how to use a light touch, unfolding these moments with subtlety rather than going out of his way to draw attention to them, which in turn makes it that much funnier.

Like many films of the Czech New Wave, this one uses a cast of non-actors, which lends it a documentary, slice-of-life feel and helps foster the very natural sense of flow that informs the story. The Firemen’s Ball is the kind of film that can be enjoyed for what it seems to be on the surface – a loose collection of interconnected anecdotes – but also for what it actually is, a sharp political allegory about bureaucratic corruption and the social/moral decay engendered by living under such a system. Forman denied the film’s political undertones at the time of its release (with good reason), but it’s impossible to believe that there were no political motivations driving the film because the symbolism isn’t far below the surface at all. The Firemen’s Ball may not be meaningful in exactly the same way it was in 1967, but it is still an excellent film and easily one of the director’s very best.

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